Friday, March 19, 2010

"On academics in the Web 2.0 Era," or "From Peer Review to Blogging: Academics in the Web 2.0 Era"

I’m wondering what those of you who read blogs by the likes of Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, Chris Blattman, etc. think about academics in the development field (or academics in general) blogging.  In the Web 2.0 Era, everybody has the opportunity to voice his or her opinion (well, those of us fortunate to live in countries where the internet is not censored and where electricity and internet access are available on a consistent basis), to lend his or her analytical muscle to consideration of the important issues of our time, and/or to bloviate ad nauseum about their own pet issues (I can assure you that that is not a dig at Bill Easterly).  What took off as a sensation during the 2004 presidential campaign has become de rigeur for the web presences of journalists, non-profits, government agencies, and, yes, a growing plurality of development economists.  Many bloggers are hacks, of course.  Some, fortunately, are exceptional writers and keen policy analysts and observers.  The issue of the quality and accuracy of journalism in the editor-less blogosphere is essentially a long-running, two-sided debate (which newspapers continue to lose), but what about peer review-less academics?  Should we be concerned with the quality of the information academics publish in the blogosphere?  At the very least, and without having done a literature review on the subject or inventoried recent blog posts by the above-mentioned economist-bloggers, I think we should read these blogs with certain considerations in mind.  Why?  Well, we’ve certainly been burned before (see The Bell Curve, or, according to Bill Easterly, The End of Poverty – I jest).

Blogging represents stage 3 in the evolution of academic publishing: 1) peer-reviewed articles, 2) peer-review less books written by “public intellectuals”, and, again, 3) peer-review and editor-less blogging.  Generally, academic contributions are espoused in academic journals in articles that go through a peer review process.  While peer review is not a perfect system, most academic journals employ it in order that similarly qualified experts can review submitted work to ensure that it meets certain standards of quality, analytical rigor, and novelty – that it contributes something new to the field (law reviews, by stark contrast, are generally student run – if the managing editor of a law journal happens to like your piece, you’re in like Flynn).  Academics, including Mr.’s Collier, Easterly, and Sachs, have long condescended to pen books for consumption by the public; these basically present academic analysis (generally analogous to the results and conclusion sections of academic papers) in digestible language for consumption by the lay public.  Are these books peer reviewed?  Not as such, no (Ibid The Bell Curve -- The link provides citations to post hoc refutations of its core findings and abuses of statistics…and, of course, its pernicious normative foundations).  Peer review does not, of course, impede the exercise of freedom of speech – rather, it intends to exclude scholarship that is not considered of a high enough quality to bear the seal of approval of the discipline to which it attaches itself.  Book writing, though often a more labor-intensive undertaking, nevertheless does not require authors to submit to peer review.

Blog-writing one-ups book writing, offering an effortless solution to peer-review/editor-less publishing for academics.  With peer review, we are generally assured that their writing is good, that their statistics are not manipulated, and that their arguments move their discipline forward.  Of course, we may have no idea what they are saying.  We understand their books, though some of us, some of the time are (I keep coming back to the The Bell Curve) susceptible to provocative, though specious, arguments.

So why am I concerned about this?  Academics are experts.  The general blog-reading public is not (though many readers of AidWatch, Rodrik’s blog, etc. are).  Blogs present an exploitable outlet through which academics could conceivably publish material that is not worthy of academic publication but that bears the imprimatur of academic expertise and persuasiveness.  Again, I’m not saying this is happening with the blogs I referenced above.  I simply want to put this out there.  Do any of you share these concerns?


  1. I think the real question is where does the equilibrium of participation lie. This is the focal point of all Web 2.0. YouTube only has trolls, so it's only worthwhile for a troll to post; Wikipedia does a good job of limiting the voice mis-information in the long run, so most of the time it's not worth the mis-informer to post. This is really the essence of any open forum, no matter what the format: it comes down to a matter of 1) Whom does it reach? 2) What are their incentives for participation? and 3) How does their participation shape the finished product? Peer-reviewed journals are about providing very careful answers to those three questions, with special emphasis on 1 and 3. Blogging is about very careless answers to those three questions, but there's in some ways more relative emphasis on 2. I know more about economics than international development, so, to pick an example I'll say that I absolutely love the comments section on Some people spout non-sense and anecdotes, and some people take the opportunity to offer arguments against or refinements to the relatively hasty expressions inherent in blogging. One gets the impression that a bulk of commenters have studied economics, and they get instant gratification if they've added something to the discussion. Book-writing has zero emphasis on 3, and that's probably the problem.